What happens when the balancing act between the human population and nature is thrown off? Is it more important to protect the man-made infrastructure or the natural environment that predated it? These questions and many more are being asked all over Oregon and beyond as ranchers struggle to hold their ground while native species of wildlife – in this case elk – encroach on their grazing land, reducing their cattle’s feed and leaving them struggling to survive.
“Historically the elk were only on the prairie for a few months during the summer,” John Williams, a retired Wallowa County extension agent and Associate Professor of Animal and Range Sciences for Oregon State University, explained. “Now these elk spend most of the year on the prairie.”
“Living off ranching is marginal anyway,” 77 year old Bill Tsiatsos, a rancher near Starkey, Ore. said. “And I’m paying more for these elk than I get off the lease of my land.”
Although Tsiatsos has always had elk herds grazing on his property, the past 20 years have shown a sharp increase in the herd size and, in direct correlation, the destruction they cause.
“Years past the numbers weren’t so high and the damage wasn’t so significant,” he remembered. “I was born and raised here and in that period of time we never had a problem with elk.”
The elk in question, which are made up of two subspecies, are both native to Oregon but because of market hunting in the late 1800s they became nearly extinct.
“Settlers hunted elk as a primary source of meat and harvest was unregulated. During the latter half of the nineteenth century ‘market hunting’ and human encroachment on elk range took a heavy toll on Oregon’s elk populations,” said Michelle Dennehy, the Communications Coordinator for Oregon Fish and Wildlife. “Market hunters killed thousands of elk for meat, hides and antlers. These products were sold in population centers in Oregon and shipped throughout the nation.”
That scarcity led Oregon Legislation to provide protection for the few elk that remained. Conservation efforts led to the restocking of herds – 15 from Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1912 and another 15 in 1913.
“The scale of transplanting in the early 1900s was limited and alone does not account for the rapid increases in elk numbers and distribution,” Dennehy noted. “Recovery of elk in Oregon and elk expansion into much of their original range is largely the result of total protection of local remnant populations.”
Although the initial protection lasted only until 1904, when a small amount of hunting became permitted, two further periods of protection occurred from 1909 to 1932 and again, by decree of the War Department, during World War II – at which time the herd size increased dramatically and complaints about the encroachment of elk on cattle ranches began.
“[B]y 1924 there were numerous complaints about competition between elk and domestic livestock,” Dennehy said.
Complaints of elk destruction by cattle ranchers are, on the whole, nothing new. What is new are the reasons behind them. Population is often the most general and easy to correct cause for complaint – although there is some discrepancy about the degree of overpopulation throughout Oregon at this time. A new and more complex issue that is more difficult to solve is distribution.
The reasons behind this shift in habit are numerous, including; a decrease in ranching in the Canyon-lands – where the elk winter – causing an insurgence of bunchgrass, the outlawed use of hunting dogs for cougars and bears – increasing the number of predators in the canyons, decreased forest harvest – which increases the forest’s density and reduces forage available in those areas, yearly hunting on US Forest Service lands and the encroachment of public roads upon elk habitat.
“It really isn’t a good habitat for elk,” Pam Harshfield said of the current state of the Canyonlands. “And they have found this greener pasture in the valleys.”
Harshfield, along with her husband Mike, owns a ranch outside of Wallowa, Ore., where the couple has been dealing with extreme elk damage to their hay crops, feed barns and fencing that began in earnest in 2016.
“[T]hat was the only winter in 40 plus years,” she said. “We had close to three feet of snow. It felt like the elk almost got trapped because of the amount of snow. And honestly, the elk just are not leaving the valley the way they used to.”
The Harshfields, who were working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to find a solution for the increasing size of the elk herd grazing their land for many years before the difficult winter of 2016-17, were initially reluctant to utilize many of the solutions they were offered, including the use of damage tags and a kill permits.
“In the beginning we weren’t really wild about having hunting on our property,” Harshfield explained. “I was just cautious about who we allowed on our property.”
But now, after several more years of damage from a herd of nearly 200 elk that have made the Harshfield ranch their nearly constant home, they are planning to allow hunting in earnest on their 450 acre ranch, in the hopes that it will either thin the herd or, at the very least, drive them away.
“We have to keep trying,” she said. “I’m going to purchase these pop up camo blinds and set them out at different points on our place. I’ll need hunters in August and September – seven days a week.”
Although that level of thinning may seem extreme, Dennehy views the Harshfield’s new plan as a step in the right direction.
“ODFW recognizes that elk damage is a problem for the Harshfields and other landowners in the area,” she said. “We ask that any landowner experiencing damage be proactive and work with us using the many legal tools available. These tools are only effective if the landowner takes an active role in helping solve their damage problem ... and if neighboring landowners share the same objectives when it comes to elk damage and the presence of elk on private land.”
But not all neighbors do share the same outlook on the presence of elk in the valley lands and because elk roam, that too can lead to issues.
“[D]ifferent and often neighboring landowners can have different objectives, with some allowing hunting for example, and some not,” Dennehy said. “For example, in the Harshfield situation, there are neighboring landowners who desire more elk and who would prefer ODFW not attempt to reduce local elk numbers.”
Tsiatsos agrees that neighborly cooperation is key to solving the elk issue but – because the land around his ranch is regulated by the state – he has a unique view of how the teamwork should be handled.
“If [the elk] are doing damage then the state needs to control that,” he said emphatically. “Say I had 50 cows get out here on state ground, I would have them off in 24 hours. Let’s have them have the same effect. A landowner can’t support the mismanagement for the public – it’s the state’s animal. Where are my rights to protect my property, land and livestock?”
Currently this issue is one with foreseeable short-term resolution. Williams only sees as a series of long-term solutions that would need to play out over many years.
“We need much more aggressive management of forests on public lands, we need predator control and we need, if possible to balance the hunting pressure between the public and private lands,” Williams suggested. “And we need to do these things over a period of time because changing wildlife patterns is a slow process. All this while reducing the numbers overall.”
But that sluggish timeline may be difficult for ranchers who continue to offer safe haven to elk herds that number in the hundreds.
“Every year we have to pay someone to go out and repair our fences,” Harshfield said. “And the herd comes in and eats a lot of our [hay] crop. Mike figured this year that loss of revenue – because of eating of our hay crop and no forage – he figured it cost us about 10,000 dollars in lost revenue. We’re actually being forced to consider cutting back on the number of cattle we run and we have to buy hay. We should not be forced to make that decision.”
Although certainly in agreement that the situation is making ranching more taxing, Williams is not worried about the future of Oregon’s ranching economy.
“Wallowa County ranchers are resilient,” he stated confidently. “They will survive and at times thrive in spite of the challenges of ranching.”